Return to History Menu
100 Years of Sinn Fein – Part 4

Joe Craig

15th June 2005

The Second World War had destroyed the Irish Republican Army just as surely as it had the Wehrmacht or Imperial Japanese Army, yet within just over a decade it was preparing for a new campaign. For republicans this is viewed in terms of the mythical Phoenix that returns to life out of the ashes. Not however a particularly happy analogy, since it is destined to return to ashes.

Such a way of looking at republicanism also reflects a view that its history is a cyclical one, of periods of political development inevitably producing betrayal followed by confirmation of traditional truths reasserted by armed struggle. This contains an element of truth. All republican attempts to develop political strategies to advance their programme of an independent and unitary Irish State have led to effective abandonment of that goal, and such betrayal has revealed a minority willing to challenge the betrayal through renewed armed action. This in turn is defeated, resulting in a search for lessons from the defeat and renewed interest in politics.

The element of truth behind this noting of an alternating cycle of military action, defeat, political reappraisal, betrayal and renewed military action hides an underlying political development.

There is now, for example, no possibility of armed action against the previous number one enemy – the Free State traitors, of whom Sean Russell had repeated: ‘Of all parliaments beyond all comparison the most shameful and abandoned of all sense of virtue, principle or even common decency, was the Dublin government.’ Now after the crushing defeat by that government, prompted by the IRA campaign in Britain, the republicans had only one target left – the North.

In 1949 therefore the Bodenstown commemoration was informed that ‘The aim of the Army is simply to drive the invader from the soil of Ireland and to restore the sovereign independent Republic proclaimed in 1916. To that end, the policy is to prosecute a successful military campaign against the British forces of occupation in the Six Counties.’ The IRA attempted to evade possible repression from the Southern State by repeating that its activity was solely directed against Britain, although once again to no avail.

Right-Wing and Catholic

The first IRA general army convention after the war in 1948 ruled out military activity in the South and decided to prepare for a campaign on the North. It also concluded that it needed political support, and of a kind that would not conflict with its own policy of abstentionism. It therefore decided to take over Sinn Fein and the IRA army council instructed members to join. From now on the history of the former became inextricably entwined with the latter. IRA men took the party leadership and a new constitution and programme was drawn up, vetted by sympathetic clergy to ensure there was nothing in it that would conflict with Catholic Church teaching.

The right-wing and Catholic character of the party reflected the views of the leaders of the IRA who favoured the social teachings of the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum and disapproved of the welfare state. In this the movement not only reflected the wider conservatism of Irish society but also the mounting world-wide tide of reaction from the developing cold war.

The conservatism of Irish society which found its faithful reflection in republican politics is itself only comprehensible as a reflection of the Irish state’s position in the world. Far from the neutrality of the Irish state during the Second World War revealing its truly independent character, the war had shown the small Irish state to be utterly dependent on the big imperialist powers, and on Britain in particular, which could have brought the state to its knees in a matter of months. The availability of the North to the allied imperialist powers and the biased neutrality in favour of them practised by de Valera obviated the need for an allied invasion.

Following the war the marginal status of the state, which had failed even to develop its own independent currency, was revealed by its missing the long post-war boom that ensued in the rest of the developed capitalist world. The Irish state failed to take its place in this post-war growth not because of wrong economic development policies but because Ireland was not already a developed capitalist economy. The attempt, begun in the thirties, to make it one through import substitution and creation of a genuine native capitalism was instead coming to grief.

The imperialist subordination of the Irish economy in a situation where capital accumulation was taking place primarily in the already advanced economies, and in economic sectors in which Irish capital was truly Lilliputian, meant that the very existence of the state came under threat. Not from armed imperialism, but from its more powerful economic and social forces. The state’s underdeveloped status was revealed in a balance of payments crisis in the 1950s that meant the country could not pay its way. Ironically the situation would have been worse had it actually had its own currency. Its dependence in this respect on Britain limited the decline while ultimately being the nexus of the problem.

The economic crisis led to a social one as emigration mounted and a book was written about the ‘disappearing Irish.’ By 1957 178,000 people had emigrated in the previous four years and in that year a further 60,000 did so, still leaving 78,000 unemployed. The youngest and most vital in the population emigrated and all the most conservative and reactionary forces within society were strengthened. The inability to develop economically and thus to create some sort of welfare capitalism was masked by a reactionary political consensus that declared it didn’t favour a welfare system anyway. The crumbling economic foundations of Irish society precluded any other view and ‘radical’ republicanism just became part of the reactionary consensus.

The depressing economic and social circumstances could not however fail to evince discontent and disaffection. In the North these combined with blatant sectarian discrimination to replenish and enlarge a republican constituency.

Ballot box and Gun

The rise of Clann na Poblachta, formed in 1946 by former IRA leader Sean MacBride, and the encouraging performance of a republican candidate for President in 1945, Patrick McCartan, gaining 200,000 votes, showed that there still existed a republican constituency outside Fianna Fail. The declaration of a Republic by the Inter-Party government in 1949 and the passing of the Ireland Act by the British in the same year heightened political activity on partition North and South.

None of this got anywhere, but this did not prevent the Stormont regime introducing yet more repressive legislation in the early fifties, the Public Order Act in 1951 and Flags and Emblems Act in 1954.

In 1955 Sinn Fein won 152,310 votes in the Westminster elections and got two prisoner candidates elected. Two years later it won 65,640 votes in the general election in the Southern State and also got four TDs elected. In the meantime on 12 December 1956 the IRA launched Operation Harvest, the culmination of five years’ planning, when four IRA units totalling 120 men attacked targets in each of the occupied six counties.

The following campaign was by and large restricted to the border, the fear of unionist reprisals in Belfast deterring action there. No British soldiers were killed, six RUC men lost their lives and so did twelve republicans, evoking, in the case of Fergal O’Hanlon and Sean South, a large display of sympathy North and South on the occasion of their funeral. The campaign itself however was a flop and the election that recorded Sinn Fein’s gains also resulted in the return to power of Fianna Fail, which did what it does best and clamped down on the IRA by introducing internment, in doing so following the example set by the Unionist regime at Stormont.

From 341 incidents in 1957, activity fell to 26 in 1960 but such was the reduction in threat that the Curragh internment camp was closed by de Valera the year before. In the British general election in 1959 the Sinn Fein vote halved to 73,415 and in 1961 the same happened to the vote in the South, which fell to 30,529, with 14 of the 21 candidates losing their deposit. Republicans could provide a vehicle to express protest at the alienation of sizeable sections of the Irish people but no means to effectively overcome it.

Finally on 26 February the IRA dumped arms and acknowledged defeat, honestly admitting that the reason was lack of support from the people they wanted to free. Their ‘minds have been deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people – the unity and freedom of Ireland.’

The defeat for the republican movement was total. Sinn Fein was firmly under the control of the IRA and was no more than an adjunct to it. The defeat for the armed campaign of the IRA was thus its defeat also. More importantly, the defeat was one which was decisive. The IRA had begun by proposing a second round against the Free State traitors but had been forced to abandon it because such an adventure would have gained no support. The target shifted to Britain but again there could be no support there for an armed campaign, being fought on the most unfavourable terrain it made no sense even in the blinkered military terms in which militarist republicans thought. The bombing campaign in Britain had been a disaster. Now the only strategic alternative left to physical force republicanism had been an abject failure, again admittedly from a lack of support. There were no more targets left.

Of course the historical impasse which faced the movement wasn’t fully registered by it, they consoled themselves with thoughts of a new Northern campaign, but the inescapable logic of events did force a rethink. It was to be the most fundamental rethink of republican politics in the movement’s history and it promised to produce a break from the inherent limitations and failures of republican politics.



Return to top of page